Lead book review

Up close and personal | 24 April 2014

What should a writer write about? The question, so conducive to writer’s block, is made more acute when the writer is evidently well-balanced, free of trauma and historically secure. It is made still more urgent when that writer is solipsistic in tendency and keen to write, not about the world, but about perceptions of the

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An escape from New South Wales

Thomas Keneally has constructed his latest novel around a framework of true events: the mass break-out of Japanese PoWs from a camp in New South Wales. This intrinsically thrilling incident, triggered by a fascinating clash between mutually uncomprehending cultures, is an obvious gift to a writer. There may be some who claim that any novelist

The train stations that don’t really exist

In 1964, as part of his railway cuts, Dr Beeching ordered the closure of Duncraig, a small, little-used station in the Scottish Highlands. The train drivers working the line simply ignored him. They continued to stop there, and the station remains open to this day. A world where nothing ever changes, or indeed happens —

Recent crime fiction | 24 April 2014

Louise Welsh rarely repeats herself, a quality to celebrate in a crime novelist. Her latest novel, A Lovely Way to Burn (John Murray, £12.99, Spectator Bookshop, £10.99) is a dystopian thriller set in an all-too-plausible version of contemporary London. Three members of the establishment have shot dead innocent bystanders. The weather is broiling. A plague-like

The gambler’s daily grind

Lord Doyle is a shrivelled English gambler frittering away his money and destroying his liver in the casinos of Macau. Aptly, since he is in a place filled with mock-Venetian canals and poor reproduction paintings, he himself is a fake: the man is not a real lord, and the money is not his own. He

What most imperilled country houses in the 20th century was taxes and death duties, not requisition

Servicemen used paintings as dartboards.   Schoolchildren dismantled banisters and paneling for firewood. Architects from the Ministry of Works acted like pocket Stalins. Sarcophagi were dumped in gardens beside beheaded statues. And overhead, Luftwaffe Dorniers droned with menace. Such hazards ravaged requisitioned country houses during the last war. Yet nothing imperilled them more, in the 20th

Beauty in beastly surroundings

The vast majority of books written about British gardens and their histories are concerned with large ones, made and maintained, sometimes over several centuries, by people with money. ’Twas ever thus. In this country, recognisable gardens began in monasteries, as well as the surroundings of palaces and noblemen’s houses, and it is only in the